As the effects of a warming climate intensify and a sense of impending catastrophe grows stronger, it’s becoming easier to give in to environmental despair. Having spent the past five years studying the Arctic and traveling around Greenland, I feel the pull as well.
Glaciers and sea ice are melting at an alarming rate; temperatures are rising at a steady clip. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s recent efforts to ignore a fact-based, scientific approach — rejecting, for instance, the use of computer projections to assess how a warming world might look after 2040 — leads me to worry that climate denialism is moving from the scientific fringes to the institutional center.
Still, it’s worth considering that things may not be as bad as they appear. I say this with a full understanding that most indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. Yet I also feel we’re in danger of losing sight of two crucial and encouraging aspects of our predicament.
The first is the extraordinary value of the climate knowledge we’ve amassed over the past 100 years — a vast archive of data and wisdom that gives us a fine-grained understanding of how the planet is warming and how we can change the trajectory we’re on.
The second is the emergence of potential solutions, the products of a half-century of technological innovation, which may help us avert the worst impacts of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we continue to release into the atmosphere. (Last year carbon dioxide emissions were the highest ever recorded.)
Almost certainly, these tools, if used wisely, could keep global average temperatures from rising 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, from a preindustrial baseline. Even lesser levels of warming are probably hazardous, but that temperature is the point beyond which many scientists believe the planet will suffer irreversible impacts from extreme and dangerous warming.
Recently, the entrepreneur and technologist Saul Griffith undertook a study of energy consumption for the Department of Energy and concluded that, using the United States as an example, “decarbonization is not an unattainable ideal.” In fact, he surmised it would be far easier than one might think, given our wealth and technological know-how.
We don’t need to assume an attitude of fear and dread. Our scientific progress is a story of technological optimism, defined by an extraordinary sense of capability. It shows what might be built and gained in the coming decades, and not merely what could be lost.
First, let’s consider this: For all the terror and gloom that global warming portends, its discovery is one of the greatest achievements of modern science. Technology can now tell us everything from how many tons of ice were shed by the glaciers in Greenland over the past few years to how many millimeters the oceans rose. Indeed, almost every fact or idea that informs the climate debate, from the number of endangered species to the dangers of melting permafrost, results from countless scientists and engineers, working in the field and in laboratories, over the course of a century.
To slow their melting, glaciers could be protected by walls blocking warm waters…